As anyone who has ever loved and lost can attest, love and mortality are hopelessly entangled. Katrin’s husband Eric makes it clear that he plans to face his own mortality in as matter-of-fact a way as he can. “I don’t want to be like that colleague of yours, Dennis What’s-his-name,” he says, in the opening sentence of The Life-Writer, the poignant new novel from David Constantine (whose collection In Another Country inspired the Oscar-nominated film 45 Years). “I don’t want to be…clinging on…I don’t call that living when all you think about is staying alive.” Eric has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and elects to let it run the course it will. “I can’t complain,” he says, describing his illness as “correct and final.” And, perhaps, the truth is that he can’t. He’s lived a full life, and even a rewarding one.
His death, dignified or not, does not take long. Before too much time has passed, Katrin is his caretaker, and not long after that, he is gone. But, one night right before his death, Eric surprises Katrin when, lucid and energetic, he begins to tell her a story.
It is from these beginnings that Katrin, a respected literary biographer who has devoted much of her career to exploring the lives and works of little-known and largely unpublished writers and artists, will begin to sketch a broader, and yet simultaneously more incisive, portrait of the person she loved. And it is from these beginnings that Constantine crafts a tender, richly observed novel that slices right down to the bone of the state we universally define as love.
The story Eric wants to tell – and that he cannot finish – is the story of a long-ago summer spent in France, when he thought that “the land and its roads and traffic would never be anything but kind to him.” It is also the story of his first love – a woman who is still alive and well in Paris.
After his death, left with his letters and with the memories of one of his closest friends, Katrin, with her biographer’s eye, begins to read between the lines, picking out the instances that, eventually, made the man she knew.
Ordinarily, a reader would expect this premise to lead them one of two ways – either to a catastrophically painful revelation, or on a trite journey of self-discovery. Under Constantine’s steady, gentle touch, however, The Life-Writer becomes something quite different and truly rare: a honest and objective story of grief and acceptance.
The Life-Writer is perhaps at its most powerful, in fact, when Constantine is examining not only the acceptance of a loved one’s death, but acceptance of the life they inevitably lived before they met you, outside of the orbit of your shared existence. Few readers will have trouble relating to Katrin’s particular brand of fascination with the parts of Eric’s life she missed out on – the chapters of his biography penned in the decades before they met. Who, after all, has not felt some keen interest – neither wholly innocent nor malevolent and jealous – in the long-ago experiences, routines, friends and lovers of a person they later loved themselves?
It may be that the most loving thing we can do is to delve head-on into that past. It may be that the truest way to grieve is to tell stories.
Learning and telling the story of a life can be gratifying, surprising, and mesmerizing. It can be painful, too, but it is the kind of pain that goes hand-in-hand with love. It is in examining a life, in learning its minutiae, that we acknowledge and even overcome our grief. It is in telling stories, Constantine shows us, that we come to terms with just how close love and mortality truly are to one another.
In The Life-Writer, David Constantine points us right at the intersection of love and grief, and rolls us quietly, kindly through. We are better for the journey.
The Life-Writer by David Constantine (Biblioasis | 9781771961011 | October 11, 2016)